My high school was about a five minute walk from mom’s store on Madison Avenue and 62nd street. I would usually finish the school day and swing by her store to see if she needed help with anything. As part of the service she provided, if a customer purchased a present for a friend, mom would hand deliver the package to them. Occasionally she would ask me to do that if the recipient’s address were on my way home.
One day she gave me a package which had been purchased for a person who lived about six blocks north of the store on Fifth Avenue and asked if I would mind taking it there. So I left with my school books in my bag and the present in my other hand and started up Madison Avenue.
I loved looking in the store windows at all the beautiful things that were for sale – if you had the money to buy them. To make sure I took it all in, sometimes I would walk home on the west side of the street and sometimes on the east. I always looked forward to my walks home.
I was about two blocks from delivering my package when I saw her.
Like a disfigured statue she stood – implanted in the middle of the sidewalk – kneeling with the stumps of her amputated legs on some carpet, placed on top of a small piece of plywood which had four small wheels at its base.
Her gray hair blew across her face as the autumn New York wind had its will with it. In her right hand she held a tin cup, filled with yellow-colored lead pencils.
She wore fingerless gloves on her hands and used her fists to propel herself slowly down the street. In a faint voice she cried out, “Pencils – only ten cents. Would you please buy a pencil?”
I turned away and peered in the window of one of the stores. I couldn’t look at her. Deformed and poor – in contrast to the wonderful stores – beautiful and opulent. But she kept asking, “Would you please buy a pencil?” – and as I turned around I saw that she was looking directly at me with her hopeful but sad pale blue eyes.
I told her that I didn’t have any money on me but that if she would wait 10 minutes I could get some. I said I would be right back and returned to my mother’s store.
Mom was naturally surprised to see me – especially since I was still carrying the package I was supposed to deliver. She asked me what was wrong.
I explained that there was a lady who was selling pencils on the street and I wanted to buy one from her. I asked her for an advance of $1.00 on my $2.00 allowance which she gave me without any hesitancy. I promised that I would deliver the package and go straight home afterward – as soon as I had conducted my business with this woman. And so I started back up Madison Avenue.
The Pencil Lady had only moved two stores down the street during the time I was gone.
I went up to her and asked for a pencil. She offered me the cup to allow me to choose my own. I selected one and handed her the dollar bill. I said to her, “I know these must be special pencils – so please keep the change.”
She thanked me and a broad, beautiful smile came over her face. And she thanked me again. And again.
I went on my way, delivered mom’s package and went home.
I never saw The Pencil Lady again.
Although it’s decades since I encountered her, I still have the pencil which I purchased from her. I have never sharpened or used it.
I think it’s the most priceless pencil in the world.